Most Tennesseans have never seen an animal with rabies or known a family who has lost a loved one to the deadly disease. While that’s a testament to vigorous statewide rabies vaccination efforts that started in 1954, the Tennessee Department of Health is reminding residents this disease could make a comeback if people become complacent.
“In the five years before dog vaccinations were required in our state, ten residents died from rabies,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner. “The last human rabies death in Tennessee was in 2002. It’s important for all Tennesseans to know rabies has not been eradicated; it is still a threat that requires ongoing efforts by animal owners and others to prevent future suffering and deaths.”
City and county health departments across Tennessee are now offering rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats. The vaccinations are important to protect not only pets, but to provide a barrier between wildlife rabies and humans. In 2013, there were 37 confirmed cases of rabies in animals in 18 Tennessee counties; the majority of those, 19, were skunks.
“Losing a pet to rabies is traumatic and unnecessary,” said TDH Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn, DVM, PhD. “Dogs and cats are protected from rabies through vaccinations. In addition to having pets vaccinated, people can protect themselves and their families from rabies by being aware of potential dangers, taking precautions to avoid animal bites and exposures and seeking medical advice if a bite or exposure occurs.”
Rabies is transmitted by the saliva of an infected mammal; it cannot be spread by reptiles or fish. It’s important to know, however, that mammals may carry the rabies virus without displaying recognizable signs of infection. For this reason, it’s important to avoid touching any wild animal, especially common carriers such as bats, skunks, raccoons and foxes.
Left untreated, the rabies virus spreads through the central nervous system. First symptoms of rabies in people are fever, headache and weakness or fatigue. As the disease progresses, additional symptoms appear including sleeplessness, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, hallucinations, excitability and hyper salivation (increased production of saliva) and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these latter symptoms.
In addition to rabies, wild animals may have a variety of other diseases and parasites that can be transmitted to pets, livestock and humans. Raccoons commonly have a roundworm known as Baylisascaris procyonis, which can create severe health issues including organ damage, brain seizures and blindness in humans. The roundworm can live for some time in raccoon droppings, extending its ability to be transmitted to other hosts. Avoiding contact with raccoon's and raccoon feces are preventive measures to reduce risks of exposure to the raccoon roundworm.